The legal battle has dragged on for three years and cost Calistoga taxpayers almost $1 million, maybe headed for $2 million next year.
It has caused bitter divisions in town, led City Council members to ponder retirement, forced layoffs and pay cuts at the already cash-starved City Hall. It has even led to an ongoing inquiry by the Napa County grand jury.
But for all the havoc wrought by the legal fight over how the city manages water at its Kimball Dam, the figure behind it, a San Diego man named Grant Reynolds, remains a mystery.
“I’ve always shunned the limelight when I could,” Reynolds said in a phone interview last month. “I’ve never been into the notoriety.”
Reynolds first filed suit in 2009 accusing the city of taking more water out of the 70-year-old reservoir than state permits allowed, damaging the habitat for the salmon and steelhead trout that breed in the Napa River.
His lawsuit forced the City Council to agree earlier this year to allow more water to flow downstream past the Kimball Dam, but not before they paid the city attorney more than $900,000 in legal costs. And Reynolds’ lawyer is now asking a judge to force the city to pay him up to $1.3 million in legal fees for his time.
As the Kimball Dam legal battle was winding down this fall, however, Reynolds filed a second suit, accusing the city of misappropriating money designated for flood control and environmental projects to build a new water tank on Mount Washington. If he succeeds in that lawsuit, the city will be on the hook not only for additional legal costs, but it will have to find a way to come up with an extra $2.7 million, which it doesn’t have readily at hand, to replace the money from the flood control funds.
So who is this person from San Diego who has made life such a headache for officials in a small city in Napa Valley? Why does he do what he does?
The answer, it turns out, starts with surfboards.
Attending college in Southern California around 1960, Reynolds found himself bored.
“I got stuck in all the brainiac classes with all the book worms and I hated it,” said Reynolds, 69, in a rare personal interview with The Weekly Calistogan earlier this year. “I was a surfer. I went to college and one day (the surf) was 15 foot at north Birdrock and it was blowing offshore and I was in an astronomy class. And like in that book ‘Tom Sawyer,’ where he needed to figure out an excuse to get out of there, I just got up and walked out.”
“Then I went to Hawaii to ride big waves in 1960-61,” he recalled. “That was a thrill.”
Reynolds said his love of the sport was pure and unspoiled by the commercialism that came with the surfing craze that hit later in the 1960s.
“First of all it was the fear of the unknown, you didn’t know if you could live through that,” he recalled of his reckless early days in Hawaii. “Secondly, we were doing it for the pure sport: There were no cameras, no contests, none of that. We just wanted to see if we had what it took to do that. And it took a lot of courage when you’re 18 years old to get out there and do that. That was a rush.”
Reynolds eventually came home to Southern California and got into the business of making surfboards. He started out running the well-known Bay Cities Glassing, applying the shiny finish coat to the wooden core of the surfboards. He finished boards for the legendary Hap Jacobs and Bing Copeland, pioneers of the surf scene in Southern California. In 1971, when Jacobs got tired of the business, Reynolds bought the Jacobs Surfboard company.
Many current surfboard makers mention Reynolds as a mentor and early boss in their careers. In an interview with surfing blog Liquid Salt, champion surfer David Nuuhiwa refers to Reynolds as one of a group of “superstars” whom Nuuhiwa befriended in the Southern California scene in the 1960s.
And that’s where the Calistoga connection comes in. Reynolds’ banker in the 1960s and early 1970s, funding his shops and teaching the young surfer the basics of business management, was Frank Hickerson. He had a young son named Matt Hickerson.
Decades later, Matt Hickerson would marry Debbie O’Gorman of Calistoga. O’Gorman and Hickerson became embroiled in a dispute with Calistoga officials over access to water from the Kimball Dam; they said a 1939 agreement with O’Gorman’s family gave them free access to the water. The city argued that the agreement had long-since expired and wanted to start charging water fees.
In 2009, Reynolds stepped in to help Hickerson, and O’Gorman pursue their lawsuit, a case that eventually spread to a larger challenge to how the city manages its water supply.
"I’ve got to tell you I have a sense of duty that I owe to Hickerson and his family,” Reynolds said. “His mom was my wife’s business partner in (her) antique shop. His brother worked for me in the surfboard shop. And his father really, really, really imparted a lot of knowledge to me with regard to what I needed to know in my business endeavors and he really, really did support me.”
Those good times in the surfboard business didn’t last. Reynolds said his then-wife left him for another man, leaving him with a young daughter and a financial mess.
He closed his business and moved to Northern California.
“I had 25 grand, a Beechcraft Bonanza airplane, and I had a condo up in Mammoth, and all my low-life buddies were up there living,” he said. “And I went up and joined them.”
“Until that time I never smoked a joint or affiliated with drugs or anything and I was assimilated into that venue. And I thought well, it’s my personality to sort of rise to the top … so I just started flying loads of marijuana across the border, from Mexico.”
The drug running, he said, eventually escalated into harder stuff.
“Then I started going down further (into South America) and the characteristics of the cargo changed,” he said. “And of course we never thought there was anything wrong with that because we knew the government always lied. And we were wrong. And then the government involuntarily retired me: I’m sitting in a jail cell in Fresno.”
Reynolds said he was sentenced to 10 years in prison, though he wound up serving only a short time.
In that short stint in prison in the early 1970s, he said, he made a deal with God, vowing to clean up, work hard and support his daughter.
“There was a Bible on the bench: I put my finger in it with my eyes closed and I hit Psalm 27,” he said. “That’s my covenant with the Lord and I never changed since then.”
The words of the Psalm do seem to echo Reynolds’ pugnacious personality.
“When the wicked advance against me to devour me, it is my enemies and my foes who will stumble and fall,” the Psalm reads. “Though an army besiege me, my heart will not fear; though war break out against me, even then I will be confident.”
After getting out of prison, he started working for a construction company, and part of his job was to collect on delinquent debts. After a while, he said, he realized that every time they went to court to collect, the company was paying a lawyer to file paperwork that was so formulaic that it could be finished by just filling in a few blanks.
He decided to start filing the paperwork himself, cutting down on legal costs. As he learned the tricks of the court system, he became more successful and won more cases.
He eventually parlayed his self-taught legal skill into an even more lucrative business of helping credit card companies locate and sue scam artists who were racking up fraudulent charges. To this day, he makes a living consulting with companies on how to collect old debts.
And like surfing in the old days, Reynolds said, this sort of legal combat provides a thrill, a test of courage and endurance.
“The practice of law on my own behalf is essentially a methadone treatment for a perversity of character which I would characterize as an ‘adrenaline freak,’” he said. “You want that challenge. You want that. When you win one of these contests, whatever it may be, that keeps me on the straight and narrow.”
He said he has never applied his legal skills on pursuing individuals for profit: just self-serving companies and scam artists. He said his lawsuits against Calistoga are his first against a government entity.
“It’s against my religion” to go after individuals, he said.
He insists however, that his motivation is not entirely that of an adrenaline junkie. Throughout his legal battle with Calistoga, he has maintained that his background as an avid fisherman has made him an ardent environmentalist and that his deal with God includes protecting nature.
Fish species “have been given to us,” he said. “We have no right to drive a species into extinction.”
In court documents filed recently as part of his attorney’s request for legal fees from the city, Reynolds outlined his long history with nature.
“I have been fresh-water fishing since the age of
2 1/2, when I caught 19 bluegill on Lake Henshaw, California, with a fishing pole made for me by my father,” Reynolds wrote. “When I was 12 years old, I caught my first trout on a fly by balancing on the end of a tree that had fallen into June Lake, in the Sierra Nevada mountain range. On every summer vacation, my parents and I would travel somewhere to freshwater fish. As a result, a deep love of the environment was fostered in me beginning at a very early age.”
Although his time living in Mammoth led him into legal trouble, it also solidified his love of nature, he said.
In the court documents, he wrote that he “went fly fishing almost every day during fishing season … My personal observation of nature for over six decades leads me to believe that the only way to preserve a wild species is to protect the habitat in which it lives.”
His newest lawsuit against Calistoga, challenging the use of money collected through a voter-approved tax for flood control and environmental projects to build the new water storage tank, has nothing directly to do with Matt Hickerson or the water behind the Kimball Dam, or even really the fish in the Napa River, though he says the money being used for the tank should go to fish-friendly environmental projects.
Mostly, it seems, Reynolds has developed a real sense of outrage about the conduct of Calistoga officials in his long dealings with them.
“I have a perverted sense of justice,” he said. “This is wrong. This is absolutely wrong. This is absolutely fundamentally wrong where you get a special tax voted in by the voters and someone steals it to go build, albeit a project that they need. It’s wrong. It’s against the law.”